Category Archives: Epictetus

What I like about the three great Roman Stoics

I have been studying Stoicism somewhat seriously for a while now, and in particular, of course, the three great Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Although all three of them espouse the same fundamental philosophy, there are, of course interesting differences among them, which attest to the fact that Stoicism was and is a vibrant set of ideas and practices, not something perennially and unalterably written on a stone tablet.

It is also very clear to the reader of the Letters to Lucilius (for instance), the Discourses, and the Meditations, that the three in question differed markedly in terms of their personalities, which in turn affected the way they understood and practiced Stoicism. Here I’d like to explore what I find captivating in each of the three great ones and what I’m learning from them in terms of my own practice.
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Long on Epictetus, part II

City wall and gymnasium at Hierapolis

City wall and gymnasium at Hierapolis

I have recently commented on Anthony Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, focusing on the first chapter of the book, which ends up summarizing four basic themes recurring throughout the Discourses and the Manual: freedom, judgment, volition, and integrity. As I have already mentioned, the full book is well worth a reading, but I’m going to conclude this commentary by taking a look at the epilogue, on “the afterlife of Epictetus.”

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Long on Epictetus, part I

Long-EpictetusAnthony Long is one of the best modern writers on Stoicism, and we have already encountered him when I wrote about his essay on Spinoza and Stoicism. In this and the next post I will comment on Long’s Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. While the entire book is well worth reading, I will focus here on chapter 1, “Epictetus in his time and place,” and next time on the epilogue, “The afterlife of Epictetus.”

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Marcus Life: the Meditations and Epictetus

EpictetusI have recently summarized Frank McLynn’s take of how Marcus Aurelius got into Stoicism during his early formative years. I also mentioned that McLynn offers a highly critical and uncharitable view of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Here there is more, much more on that, from chapter 9 of his book, dealing with the Meditations and the influence of Epictetus.

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Epictetus on suicide: the open door policy

Epictetus“And what does it matter to you by what way you descend to Hades? All roads are equal. But, if you want to hear the truth, the one that a tyrant sends you along is shorter. No tyrant ever took six months to cut someone’s throat, but a fatal fever often lasts a year.”

So says Epictetus in Discourses II.6.17-19, while discussing the kind of death that one does not choose, but is imposed by external events. (The reference to Hades is a concession to then popular culture of the time, since the Stoics did not believe in an afterlife.) Because death is a (dispreferred) “indifferent,” Epictetus is arguing that it doesn’t matter, really, deeply, how one dies. What makes us fearful of the event is the (inaccurate) judgment that it is a bad thing that one’s consciousness cease existing.

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Epictetus vs the Epicureans and the Academics

Epictetus

Epictetus, pensive

This must be Epictetus’ week. Well, for me it’s actually Epictetus’ year, since I decided that the book I’m writing, How To Be a Stoic (to be published by Basic Books in spring ’17) will be organized as an indirect conversation between myself and the slave-turned-teacher, who will guide me and my readers in a breezy exploration of Stoicism. (My original idea was to use Seneca, but I changed my mind.)

Anyway, the other day I was re-reading Discourses II.20, entitled “Against followers of Epicurus and of the Academy,” and I was reminded once again of how forceful Epictetus’ prose can be, and of how intense the intellectual debate among Hellenistic schools really was.

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Epictetus and the Master Argument

Phidias: Athena Parthenon, ~450BCE

Phidias: Athena Parthenon, ~450BCE

Epictetus, even more so than most Stoics, thought that philosophy has to be useful, or it becomes the kind of sterile intellectual exercise (some would dare say mental masturbation) that it is notorious for in certain quarters of the modern academy.

His attitude is perhaps most explicitly and fascinatingly on display in Discourses II.19, where he tackles the famous “Master Argument,” originally proposed by Diodorus Cronus in the III century BCE (i.e., about four centuries before Epictetus).

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Stoic spiritual exercises: II, from the Meditations

from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

We have recently looked at a number of Stoic exercises straight from the mouth of one of the great ones: Epictetus. He was, of course, a teacher, and his Enchiridion, on which I focused, was explicitly put together (by his student Arrian) as a quick guide to Stoic practice.

Here I present a second set of “spiritual” exercises, this time culled (with the help of my friend Greg Lopez, co-host of last year’s Stoic Camp) from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There will inevitably be some overlap between the two sets, of course, but the contrast between Epictetus and Marcus will be instructive, as the latter was influenced by the former, and yet wrote the Meditations as a personal diary, not for publication. We are, therefore, glimpsing at what the emperor told himself he should and should not do, as a good Stoic.

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Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion

Action Philosophers-impressions

from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)

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